Shooting events on the stage definitely takes a different approach, and doing it well takes some skill and practice. Here are some tips for shooting stage plays or dance on stage:
Expose for highlights plus 1/3 stop – it’s fine to clip the shadows, particularly in black curtains behind the stage. You can bring back highlights if they are slightly exposed, and slight overexposure helps with noise. Sometimes clipping the blacks does a nice job of isolating the subject.
Use lower ISO than you think Just because it is dark in the audience doesn’t mean it is dark on stage! You don’t need to max out your ISO, but also don’t be afraid of high ISO. Never use flash as it is distracting to the actors or dancers, and without light stands or good places to bounce, it’s hard to get good directional light anyway. Most of my stage shooting is done around ISO 3200-4000.
Keep your shutter speed high – 1/300 for plays, 1/500 or more for musical theater or dance – movement is MUCH faster than you might realize, and there are no reshoots unless the director decides they need to run the scene again. To the left is an example of blur because of a shutter speed that was not quite high enough. It was shot at 1/125. Just the flick of his hands was enough to create a blur.
Set aperture wide enough to get the action – adjust as needed if you want to use a narrow depth of field to isolate an actor. I find that the busier the set, the wider I like to shoot, but 5.6 suits me well for most purposes. At the left I’ve shown an example from a production of Les Miserables where I wanted to isolate Cosette and Jean Valjean from Eponine in the background. Definitely avoid shooting at 2.8 or lower if at all possible as you’ll be hard pressed to get multiple actors or dancers in focus.
White balance – can be very tricky. If you’re lucky you can find something pure white, pure black, or medium gray to take a custom WB. Often the black curtains at the back of the stage work well. Remember to redo if the lighting changes. And ALWAYS be shooting in RAW so you have more flexibility in editing! Take into account the work of the lighting crew – In this scene from Fiddler on the Roof the lighting crew created an otherworldly green cast for the ghosts to perform in and I wanted to preserve it. With dance, they can get a little crazy with white balance and sometimes you just have to plan on going B&W!
Shoot the tech crew They are the unsung heros of theater. And often they love to be remembered as much as the actors on stage. I try to arrive early for dress rehearsal to pop into the booth and get a few shots of them at work. The sound crew, spotlight aimer, stage crew and stage manager all should be captured. If there’s an orchestra in the pit, see if you can get permission to go down there. And I always shoot the director giving notes at the end of rehearsal.
Shoot Makeup and Hair My daughters love it when I come and shoot the prep – and the large, well lit mirrors for makeup make for wonderful opportunities.
Use silhouettes when appropriate When the light on the actors or dancers is dim, consider shooting a silhouette – make sure it’s still clear what’s happening and that the actors don’t blend into one big blob.
Change your angle – One of the best parts about shooting dress rehearsal is that you can generally move around the audience. I am careful to not be blocking the director’s view of the stage, but otherwise I run ALL OVER. I will shoot from halfway back in the theater, I will shoot from one side or the other, and occasionally even from right on the proscenium, depending on the setup of the specific facility. One of the stages my daughters perform on has a concave front edge with stairs across the front, and I can often stand on those stairs way off to one side to shoot across the stage. It’s OK to shoot low, or high if you’re lucky enough to have a vantage point.
Watch the front of the stage Remember that when you shoot from any angle other than straight on, the front edge of the stage will NOT be straight. This is a real problem when the front of the stage is curved, as it often is. Of the two stages my girls most often perform on, one is curved concave (away from the audience), and the other convex (toward the audience) Avoid the temptation to fix that. If you do need to straighten in post, use the actor’s feet or the legs of a piece of furniture as your point of reference.
Wait for them to look up! Many theaters for amateur plays don’t have footlights – catch them looking up to avoid dark shadows around the eyes. In this example, you can see the difference in the light on their faces.
Watch for small groups or tableaus – Many directors like to block things this way when there is a large group, and it can be a nice way to get interaction between cast members without random hands and feet at the edges of the frames. Here’s an example of that from theater and an example from dance:
Try for a full cast shot at the end of the rehearsal It can be hard to corral everyone, but with the director’s cooperation, it can be done. They’re often a favorite with the cast.
Next up: Theater Specific Tips!